Towards the end of Capitalist Realism Fisher puts his finger on the central reason for my reluctance to discuss issues of normativity. In the chapter entitled “There’s no central exchange” Fisher compares contemporary capitalism to the bureaucratic universe depicted so well by Kafka.

The supreme genius of Kafka was to have explored the negative atheology proper to Capital: the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there– it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility. (65)

What we have here is a sort of “transcendental illusion” that emerges when mereological relations are crossed in such a way that it seems as if we’re dealing with one object when, in fact, we’re dealing with quite a different object. Fisher deftly illustrates a similar point with respect to bureaucracy. Like Kafka’s famous Castle or Law, you never directly encounter the castle or the law. Rather, we only ever encounter spokespersons or surrogates of the castle or the law. Many of us will be familiar with this is the case of bureaucracy. Suppose you’ve just been promoted and that this promotion was a very public affair, announced before all the staff and faculty at the bi-annual beginning of the semester meeting (our version of this event here at Collin is called “All College Day”). Perhaps you’ve been appointed Provost of your campus or Dean of Student Affairs. Whatever.

read on!

In this scenario all the staff is aware of your promotion. The next day you head off to your new office, stopping by the desk of one of your new colleagues asking to see some files pertaining to such and such an issue. “I’m sorry Ma’am, but I can’t show you those files. Those are only for the eyes of administrators.” “But Mark, you were at the meeting yesterday, I am an administrator!” “Yes, I’m aware of that, but I haven’t received the paper work yet. My hands are tied until the proper forms go through.” “Just call the President! He’ll tell you! I need to get to work!” “That’s not the issue Ma’am. While he’s announced your promotion even his hands are tied until the paper work goes through.”

What we have here an uncanny encounter with a dual split between objects such that we appear to be engaged with one object (ourselves as agents, the president of the college, our colleague), but where, in fact, we’re dealing with two very different objects. On the one hand, one of the objects here is not the colleague, ourselves, or the president of the college, but the bureaucracy itself. The colleague our heroine is addressing is not another person, but is rather a node or structural position within the network defining the endo-structure of the bureaucracy. And so too in the case of both ourselves as newly promoted individual and the president of the college. These are all functions within these particular objects, purely relational elements where the terms are entirely defined by “relations of interiority” (i.e., relations where the terms do not exist independently of what they relate).

This is why the knowledge of the colleague is irrelevant to the issue of whether our newly promoted heroine should have access to the files. For here the colleague is another body or person, not the bureaucracy as such. The place the president, the heroine of our story, or the colleague occupies in the bureaucracy all pertain to how this other entity or object, the bureaucracy, translates other independent objects, persons, in the production of its own closure as a self-subsistent object in its own right. Just as cells turn sugars into something else in the process of relating to these various sources of its energy in the environment, functions within a social object are different from the bodies that occupy these positions. Our heroine’s colleague knows very well that she’s been promoted, but the bureaucracy does not yet know. Thus what we get in a situation like this is a sort of short-circuit or contradiction between two distinct objects: the knowledge of the colleague and the knowledge of the bureaucracy.

Nonetheless, within the framework of experience– and this is where we get the transcendental illusion specific to these sorts of mereological cross-overs –we experience ourselves as relating to another person, when in fact we’re dealing with a very different type of object, bureaucracy. This accounts for the very special sort of frustration we experience when dealing with bureaucracy. Because of the sort of ethical understanding we’ve inherited (what might be called our “pre-ontological understanding of ethics”), we feel as if our colleague should be responsible here because we treat ethics as pertaining to individual persons. Yet we quickly discover that no one can be responsible in a bureaucracy because bureaucracies, while dependent on persons to exist, are objects that are entirely different from persons. Like Joseph K., the Law and the Castle can never be reached because it is oddly in all of the functionaries of the Law and the Castle, but something quite different than any of these functionaries.

And this is why most of the ethical theories we have available to us today are thoroughly inadequate for dealing with entities like bureaucracies, corporations, and the system of capital itself. Indeed, we can go one step further and argue that not only are these ethical theories inadequate, but they are downright ideological insofar as they promote the idea that the functioning of these objects is a matter of individual persons rather than larger-scale objects that use persons as elements in their own composition while transforming them into something quite different. As Fisher puts it, “[t]he problem is that the model of individual responsibility assumed by most versions of ethics have little purchase on the behavior of Capital or corporations” (66 – 67). If this is the case, then this is because these entities, while themselves being individuals, are not composed of individuals.

Where this sort of distinction is lacking, we end up asking the wrong sorts of questions where issues of social and political transformation are concerned. As Fisher writes,

Does anyone really think, for instance, that things would improve if we replaced the whole mmanagerial and banking class with a whole new set of (‘better’) people? Surely, on the contrary, it is evident that the vices are engendered by the structure [my emphasis], and that while the structure remains, the vices will reproduce themselves. (68)

Fisher then goes on to drive this point home remarking that,

The delusion that many who enter into management with high hopes is precisely that they, the individual, can change things, that they will not repeat what their managers had done, that things will be different this time; but whatch someone step up into management and it’s usually not very long before the grey petrification of power starts to subsume them. (69)

The illusion that the ethical theories we have inherited from the tradition engenders is that these properties of certain types of systems or objects arise from abuses on the part of corrupt or stupid individuals that occupy positions within these systems. By contrast, Fisher’s thesis seems to be that objects are closer to the way in which cells produce their own elements and repetitive patterns such that the entities used to produce these parts and repetitive patterns have little or no capacity to steer or direct the cell as a whole. In other words, there is something internal to these organizations or systems that perpetuate these sorts of relations regardless of how good or well intentioned the people are that occupy positions within these systems.

But here’s the rub: If systems or objects function in such a way as to reproduce their own patterns of actualization, then the idea of changing or steering these systems from within is highly unlikely. But this entails that changes in the endo-structure of these objects can only come from the outside or from sets of objects other than these sorts of systems. But how, we can ask, can one object act on another object in this way? In the case of the body we can discern such a relation of change between cells and the body. Cells are one object, “independent” of the body. The body is another object, independent of cells. To be sure, bodies cannot exist without cells and cells cannot exist in most cases without other cells. But nonetheless, the body is one object and the cells the body uses to perpetuate itself is quite another object. Yet there are instances where the cells “assert their independence” from the body and begin to act of their own accord. Cancer, for example, would be one instance where the governance of the body over the cells go awry and the cells begin to trace their own course to the detriment of the body. Of course, it is precisely this sort of cancerous relation between social systems and persons that those wishing to change social systems wish to avoid. But under what conditions is this possible?